Interesting translaton topicsTranslation quality

Layout and Languages

Have you ever thought about the length of text before in different languages? A lot of clients blindly send Indesign files and say, “Please, translate,” without thinking about what effect this could have on the layout of a document.

Well there are two main issues that have to be dealt with when translating a document, namely text length and orientation. I will talk about them each in turn.


This deals with how the document is set up. If you have a text in English that has to be translated into Arabic, keep in mind that Arabic reads from right to left. You open a brochure or a book in Arabic, Hebrew or Farsi for example from the “back to the front” from the perspective of an English-speaking reader. This means that almost all things in the document have to be printed and laid out in a mirrored view. The pictures that were on the right in the original document have to be placed on the left and vice versa.

A word of advice to graphic designers: Please, do not just have texts translated in a word document and paste them into Indesign if you do not know the language. Very often, customers have sent me documents in Arabic asking me to have the translator look at them and when the setences were pasted in, they ceased to be Arabic at all, sometimes being at the left of the page and in most cases, not written in connected (cursive) letters as is proper for the Arabic language.

Here is an example using the word for Arabic in the Arabic language (al-arabīyah). It is translated as

Written on this side of the page….This is correct———–>   العربية

I often receive the same text above from companies pasted into the document as:

ﺎ ﻞ ﻉ ﺭ ﺐﻯ ﻩ     <——– This is wrong

Keep in mind that if you are using Indesign, you have to be sure that your version has the capabilities to deal with Middle Eastern languages. If this is not the case, then you will not be able to do this. It is wise to have someone do the layout that speaks the language as to ensure that there is no error.

Text Length

Text length plays a crucial role in document layout. I will try to give an extreme example of what I mean on hand of a Japanese saying:

“Experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself”.

translated into Japanese is:


(literally: Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon)

Here is another example of a saying:

“Things will never be as you imagine, so you’re probably better off not seeing them.”
translated into Japanese is:


(literally: Not seeing is a flower)

Now, image you are doing the layout of a 4-page brochure that looks great in English or German and then translate that into Japanese…  and the five lines per page turn into a single line per page… It can happen and it doesn’t look good.

Of course, this an extreme example, but this can happen when translating to and from just about any language. There are people who claim that certain languages are “longer” than others. You can of course say that Japanese tends to be shorter than English, but can you say that German is shorter than Spanish or that Italian is longer than French? Not really. Language is language, so there are no rules about how long they should be.

So is there a general solution to all of this? Yes, there is. First of all, when having something translated take a look at the document and ask yourself if text length is an issue. Then ask yourself, “If this text turns out to be a lot longer or short, are there going to be problems?” If the answer is yes, then inform the office that is doing your translations and work out a solution together.

Of course, the easiest and most costly way is to completely change the layout of the document. The second thing that you can do is to give the translator a specific number of characters that cannot be exceeded for certain text segments. For translations of excel documents, this is incredibly easy for the translator to do as there are functions in most CAT (computer-aided translation) that give a warning if character limits are exceeded.  (For more on CAT tools, please see the related article on this blog).

Another option is to give plus or minus leeway. For example, request to not exceed the length of the source text in characters by plus or minus 10 percent. Another route would be to ask the translator to try to retain the length of the source text. This is not always possible and not always wise as you are adding an additional constraint to the translation which can also have an effect on quality, but if length is a serious issue, there may be no way around it.

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